Southernism of the Week:
Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit: An expression of surprise and incredulity about something good that’s happened. Like shut my mouth or paint me green and call me a cucumber … or slap me with bread and call me a sandwich!
THE GREAT SOUTHERN FOOD MIGRATION CONTINUES WITH BISCUITS
Like kale, okra and catfish, the Southern biscuit has been adopted by foodies not from around here.
Traditional Dixie-style cathead biscuits (3-inch size) and petite tea biscuits (1 to 2-inch size) are springing up in fine-dining restaurants all over the place. The latest darling on the national food scene, they’re being slathered and layered in not-so-traditional style with everything from tomato jam and spicy aoli to smoked pimento cheese and crisp-fried pork belly slices topped with greenery such as peashoots or lemongrass.
In honor of September being National Biscuit Month, the September 6-7 weekend Wall Street Journal featured biscuit recipes from some of our favorite sons and daughters of the South. The Chapel Hill Chicken Biscuit, John Currence’s Southern Belly Biscuit, and Damian Mosley’s Roasted Peach and Cheddar Biscuit (from Baltimore’s Blacksauce Kitchen) filled an entire page of that noble cosmopolitan paper.
Felicia Suzanne Restaurant cheese biscuits were among the most popular fare at the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) conference, held in Memphis this past week, with attendees from across the United States, and from Toronto, Canada, and London, England.
The biscuit has a convoluted patriotic history. Biscuits made in Britain and European countries were so named after the Middle French word bescuit and Latin origin bis (twice) and coctus or coquere (cooked). The ancient Roman soldiers ate them with their other rations. After the Norman Conquest, the Brits adapted the term in the 14th century into Middle English “bisquite” to represent a twice-baked product. They were and still are considered good for the digestion, and often are consumed with tea and other beverages.
Biscuits as known to the English and Europeans generally did not contain leavening, and were useful for long-term travel as long as they were kept dry. Think hardtack or matzoh or biscotti.
Americans, on the other hand, began referring to the English biscuit as a cookie or cracker after the War of Independence. Our biscuits evolved into a type of quick-rising bread leavened with baking soda or baking powder. The exception is the Southern beaten biscuit (famous in Maryland and the Appalachian region) made by beating air into unleavened dough. We consume our biscuits with everything from gravy to syrup.
Making light biscuits is science AND art. Low-gluten flour made from soft red winter wheat grown in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas is well suited for baking pastries and quick breads such as biscuits. That’s why some Southern flours are marketed as biscuit flour. Think White Lily, Martha White or Southern Biscuit Flour.
Buttermilk makes more tender biscuits than plain milk because the acid activates the leavening agents.
And then there’s the fat. Miraculous things can happen when we combine a dab of that sour milk with a little Southern-style flour, salt, leavening and fat such as lard, butter or shortening. Serious bakers and restaurateurs have begun seeking out sources for hand-rendered hog lard and sweet cream butter. We are fortunate in the Mid South to have easy access to all of these ingredients.
The recipes in this week’s column all are dependent on Southern flour, cold butter and whole buttermilk. I’ve thrown in a honey butter recipe as well, but feel free to substitute melted butter or homemade jam, jelly, preserves, or gravy.
This is absolutely fabulous with angel biscuits. I’ve even drizzled the honey butter over angel biscuit ham sandwiches. Many versions of honey butter call for even quantities of honey and butter (such as 3 tablespoons each). I prefer a milder taste; hence, the greater ratio of butter to honey.
2 T water
1/4 c honey
1/3 c butter (5-1/3 T), cut into pieces
1/4 tsp salt
Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan on medium heat. Add the butter, whisking to dissolve. As the butter melts, whisk in the honey and salt. Keep whisking as the mixture comes back to a boil, and remove after the mixture thickens and becomes shiny. Keep warm until ready to use.
GRANDMOTHER’S ANGEL BISCUITS
This version of biscuit is indigenous to Tennessee, where buttermilk and yeast go hand-in-glove for all baked goods. It is fantastic as a make-ahead the day of baking because, like icebox rolls, the biscuit dough can be refrigerated until time to make the biscuits. Now I know how my Grandmother Thurmond managed to pull off biscuits three times a day. Granddaddy was a contented man.
5 c self-rising flour
1/4 c white granulated sugar
3/4 c shortening
2 c buttermilk
1 pkg active dry yeast, dissolved in 2 T warm water (110˚F)
Sift flour and whisk in sugar. Cut in shortening with two knives or pastry cutter. Stir in buttermilk with a fork, and add dissolved yeast, making sure to scrape in every bit with a spatula.
Lightly knead dough to mix completely and form a ball. Place in a non-reactive bowl such as pottery or glass, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least one hour. Pull out dough and pat out biscuits about 1 inch thick, as needed. Place on a baking sheet about a half-inch apart. It’s not necessary for biscuits to rise before baking. They do it in the oven.
Bake in oven preheated to 425ºF for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Drizzle with honey butter immediately after removing from oven.
Serve at any meal, or use to make sandwiches. Yields a baker’s dozen (13) of cathead-size biscuits.
FELICIA SUZANNE’S BUTTERMILK CHEESE BISCUITS
Felicia Willette, chef and owner of Felicia Suzanne Restaurant in downtown Memphis, graciously shared her buttermilk biscuit recipe at the AFJ conference this week. Chef Felicia frequently makes cheese biscuits by adding Sweetwater Valley White Cheddar Cheese from Tennessee, along with herbs such as rosemary. I adapted Felicia’s basic buttermilk biscuit recipe into a home-cook cheesy version. Oh yum!
2 c of all-purpose flour
2 T baking powder
1 tsp table salt
1/2 stick cold butter (4 T) cut into cubes
1 c fine-grated sharp cheddar or Mexican fiesta cheese (I used Borden’s Mexican blend)
1 c whole Bulgarian buttermilk
1/2 stick butter (4 T), melted
1/4 c of all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 425˚F. Sift together the first flour, baking powder and salt into a medium-size bowl. Cut in the cold cubed butter until mixture is crumbly. Add the buttermilk and cheese, lightly folding to blend.
Melt remaining butter and use about 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons to grease baking pan. Prepare flat surface with remaining flour and flour hands. Turn dough out onto floured surface, scraping all the loose bits as well. Knead sough by lightly folding once and pressing with palms of hands. Do this 12 times. The surface flour will work into the dough, which is sticky.
Gently press out to about a half-inch thick. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch biscuit cutter, twisting the cutter into the floured surface to coat between cuts (do NOT twist the cutter when pressing into the dough).
Position biscuits on the greased pan, not touching. Lightly brush with melted butter. Bake about 12-15 minutes on center rack until evenly browned. Yields two dozen 2-inch biscuits.
ALL PURPOSE BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
This biscuit recipe is fairly generic and perfect for making up tea biscuits of 1-1/2 inches or 2 inches. The key to success with this dough is learning to judge when the dough needs more or less buttermilk. The weather and the age and type of flour can make a difference.
2 c all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white granulated sugar
6 T cold butter, cut into pieces
3/4 to 1 c whole buttermilk
Pinch of baking soda added to the buttermilk
Flour for forming the biscuits
2 T milk, optional
Preheat oven to 450˚F. Sift together the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using two knives or pastry cutter. Place into freezer for about 15 minutes to chill.
Remove chilled flour mixture from freezer. Measure out 3/4 cup of buttermilk and add the pinch of baking soda. Start with this 3/4 c buttermilk, and work into the chilled flour mixture with a fork. Add more buttermilk as needed, a little at a time to create a sticky wet dough (when the loose bits of flour adhere and the dough sticks to the fork). It may or may not take all of the remaining 1/4 cup of buttermilk.
Flour hands and form dough into a loose ball. Lightly flour flat surface. Using palm gently press out the dough ball and fold over. Repeat 5 to 7 times. Form dough about 1 to 1-1/4 inches thick.
Use 2-1/2-inch biscuit cutter to cut out the biscuits. Do not twist when cutting; pull straight up and release biscuit from cutter by gently pressing down on top of the biscuit. Reform the dough without working it too much and continue cutting out biscuits.
Lightly butter bottom of a baking pan and position biscuits almost touching. Brush tops with milk. Bake about 12 minutes. Yields about eight 2-1/2-inch biscuits.
[box style=”0″]BISCUIT TIPS
For flakier crumb, use buttermilk rather than regular milk
Do not handle dough any more than necessary (fold over and press with heel of hand two times unless otherwise instructed in recipe)
If the dough does not stick to your fingers, it’s too dry
Roll out dough about 1 or 1-1/2 inches thick (thicker if using all purpose flour, thinner if using self-rising flour or yeast)
DO NOT twist when cutting the biscuits
Always fully preheat oven; bake at high temperature; higher oven temps make the biscuits rise fluffier
For softer and fluffier biscuits, place them with sides touching (center will take longer to bake)
For crispier biscuits, leave 2-inch space between them.[/box]
Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ),Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).